[Viewpoint] Remembering the brutality in Busan

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[Viewpoint] Remembering the brutality in Busan

A recently released film “Dogani” (The Crucible), an adaptation of a novel written by Gong Ji-young based on a true and sordid story, has stirred outrage across society, prompting a police reinvestigation into serial rapes and other abuses of disabled students. Calls have come for toughened legislation to protect youngsters and the disabled from sexual assaults.

The box-office hit acutely raised awareness of some horrendous crimes against the vulnerable and weak. But in the light of past experience, the furor may fizzle into nothingness.

The horrible crimes committed in a shelter for rough sleepers in Busan that came to light in 1987 was much worse than the abuses against the hearing-impaired children in Gwangju. The country’s largest homeless shelter, which was occupied by up to 3,500 people, recruited and imprisoned drunkards or ordinary people and forced them into slavery. People who resisted were murdered. The facility received government funding of 2 billion won ($1.67 million) a year and was the scene of almost unimaginable atrocities and exploitation.

According to the National Archives of Korea, 531 died at the shelter in Busan over a span of 12 years. Some bodies were sold to universities for surgical experiments for 3 million won to 5 million won each. When one of the captives was beaten to death, doctors were paid off to say the cause was natural. Many testified of rampant sexual abuses.

The shelter was so infamous that homeless people preferred going to Samcheong Training Center, a notoriously harsh military camp aimed at retraining criminals. The barbarous abuses at the shelter came to light after a group successfully escaped. The entire country was shocked.

But the story did not end there. Authorities sent a state administrator and closed down the center. But 2,900 people who were released caused various problems. They roamed around Busan in groups and made trouble. The death of homeless people on the streets from malnutrition and diseases doubled. Pity faded away.

Society is that fickle. Incomprehensible events followed. The shelter’s head received a government award. The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Busan city government protected him. Even after he was arrested, he paid off the police so he could take a bath at home. The court gave him a slap on the wrist with a sentence of two years and six months.

After his release, the man continued to protest his innocence, saying he was plotted against and maligned by people who envied his convictions and devotion. He returned to so-called charity activities and worked rigorously. As a church elder, he ran various facilities for the disabled.

After the shelter was torn down, the land was developed as an apartment complex, and the head of the shelter’s foundation became rich enough to own a large spa. His facilities continued to make news. A shelter for the disabled was buried by a landslide caused by a flood in 2002, killing four disabled patients. Yet the man is still active as a big gun in the charity community.

Facilities for the physically disabled fully run on city or other government funds. But the residents and patients are entirely at the mercy of the facilities’ operators. Some “gangster” foundations accused of scandalous abuses snap at interference, claiming they are private companies.

The government cannot afford to run all such facilities. More public auditing inevitably fails. Nor will the British method of publicizing criminal records of charity workers make the problem go away.

Americans who care about the disabled consider Franklin Roosevelt as their best president. Roosevelt, with his own disability, knew their hardships. There is an award dedicated to his name for honorable service and merit for the disabled. John. F. Kennedy is their next favorite. His sister Rosemary lived most of her life in a mental institution. Kennedy improved benefits for the disabled.

Understanding and sympathy are the real necessities to ensure human rights and help for the disabled. And memory too. We have already forgotten the brutalities suffered by the homeless two decades ago. The fury over “Dogani” may also fizzle out soon.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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